A Russian Folk Tale
Once upon a time there was an old couple, and they had three
sons. Two of these had their wits about them, but the third
was a simpleton, Ivan by name, surnamed Popyalof.
For twelve whole years Ivan lay among the ashes from the
stove; but then he arose, and shook himself, so that six poods
of ashes fell off from him.
Now in the land in which Ivan lived there was never any
day, but always night. That was a Snake's doing. Well, Ivan
undertook to kill that Snake, so he said to his father, "Father,
make me a mace five poods in weight." And when he had got
the mace, he went out into the fields, and flung it straight up in
the air, and then he went home. The next day he went out into
the fields to the spot from which he had flung the mace on high,
and stood there with his head thrown back. So when the mace
fell down again it hit him on the forehead. And the mace
broke in two.
Ivan went home and said to his father, "Father, make me
another mace, a ten pood one." And when he had got it he
went out into the fields, and flung it aloft. And the mace went
flying through the air for three days and three nights. On the
fourth day Ivan went out to the same spot, and when the mace
came tumbling down, he put his knee in the way, and the mace
broke over it into three pieces.
Ivan went home and told his father to make him a third
mace, one of fifteen poods weight. And when he had got it, he
went out into the fields and flung it aloft. And the mace was
up in the air six days. On the seventh Ivan went to the same
spot as before. Down fell the mace, and when it struck Ivan's
forehead, the forehead bowed under it. Thereupon he said,
"This mace will do for the Snake!"
So when he had got everything ready, he went forth with
his brothers to fight the Snake. He rode and rode, and presently
there stood before him a hut on fowl's legs, and in that
hut lived the Snake. There all the party came to a standstill.
Then Ivan hung up his gloves, and said to his brothers, "Should
blood drop from my gloves, make haste to help me." When he
had said this he went into the hut and sat down under the
Presently there rode up a Snake with three heads. His
steed stumbled, his hound howled, his falcon clamored. Then
cried the Snake:
"Wherefore hast thou stumbled, O Steed! hast thou howled,
O Hound! hast thou clamored, O Falcon?"
"How can I but stumble," replied the Steed, "when under
the boarding sits Ivan Popyalof?"
Then said the Snake, "Come forth, Ivanushka! Let us
try our strength together." Ivan came forth, and they began to
fight. And Ivan killed the Snake, and then sat down again
beneath the boarding.
Presently there came another Snake, a six-headed one, and
him, too, Ivan killed. And then there came a third, which had
twelve heads. Well, Ivan began to fight with him, and lopped
off nine of his heads. The Snake had no strength left in him.
Just then a raven came flying by, and it croaked:
Then the Snake cried to the Raven, "Fly, and tell my wife
to come and devour Ivan Popyalof."
But Ivan cried: "Fly, and tell my brothers to come, and
then we will kill this Snake, and give his flesh to thee."
And the Raven gave ear to what Ivan said, and flew to his
brothers and began to croak above their heads. The brothers
awoke, and when they heard the cry of the Raven, they hastened
to their brother's aid. And they killed the Snake, and then,
having taken his heads, they went into his hut and destroyed
them. And immediately there was bright light throughout the
After killing the Snake, Ivan Popyalof and his brothers set
off on their way home. But he had forgotten to take away his
gloves, so he went back to fetch them, telling his brothers to
wait for him meanwhile. Now when he had reached the hut
and was going to take away his gloves, he heard the voices of
the Snake's wife and daughters, who were talking with each
other. So he turned himself into a cat, and began to mew
outside the door. They let him in, and he listened to everything
they said. Then he got his gloves and hastened away.
As soon as he came to where his brothers were, he mounted
his horse, and they all started afresh. They rode and rode;
presently they saw before them a green meadow, and on that
meadow lay silken cushions. Then the elder brothers said,
"Let's turn out our horses to graze here, while we rest ourselves
But Ivan said, "Wait a minute, brothers!" and he seized
his mace, and struck the cushions with it. And out of those
cushions there streamed blood.
So they all went on further. They rode and rode; presently
there stood before them an apple-tree, and upon it were gold
and silver apples. Then the elder brothers said, "Let's eat an
apple apiece." But Ivan said, "Wait a minute, brothers; I'll
try them first," and he took his mace, and struck the apple-tree
with it. And out of the tree streamed blood.
So they went on further. They rode and rode, and by and
by they saw a spring in front of them. And the elder brothers
cried, "Let's have a drink of water." But Ivan Popyalof
cried: "Stop, brothers!" and he raised his mace and struck
the spring, and its waters became blood.
For the meadow, the silken cushions, the apple-tree, and the
spring, were all of them daughters of the Snake.
After killing the Snake's daughters, Ivan and his brothers
went on homewards. Presently came the Snake's Wife flying
after them, and she opened her jaws from the sky to the earth,
and tried to swallow up Ivan. But Ivan and his brothers threw
three poods of salt into her mouth. She swallowed the salt,
thinking it was Ivan Popyalof, but afterwards--when she had
tasted the salt, and found out it was not Ivan--she flew after
Then he perceived that danger was at hand, and so he let
his horse go free, and hid himself behind twelve doors in the
forge of Kuzma and Demian. The Snake's Wife came flying
up, and said to Kuzma and Demian, "Give me up Ivan Popyalof."
But they replied:
"Send your tongue through the twelve doors and take him."
So the Snake's Wife began licking the doors. But meanwhile
they all heated iron pincers, and as soon as she had sent her
tongue through into the smithy, they caught tight hold of her
by the tongue, and began thumping her with hammers. And
when the Snake's Wife was dead they consumed her with fire,
and scattered her ashes to the winds. And then they went
home, and there they lived and enjoyed themselves, feasting
and revelling, and drinking mead and wine.
I was there, too, and had liquor to drink; it didn't go into
my mouth, but only ran down my beard.
The skazka of Ivan Buikovich (Bull's son) contains a variant of
part of this story, but the dragon which the Slavonic St. George kills
is called, not a snake, but a Chudo-Yudo. Ivan watches one night
while his brothers sleep. Presently up rides "a six-headed Chudo-Yudo"
which he easily kills. The next night he slays, but with more
difficulty, a nine-headed specimen of the same family. On the third
night appears "a twelve-headed Chudo-Yudo," mounted on a horse "with
twelve wings, its coat of silver, its mane and tail of gold." Ivan
lops off three of the monster's heads, but they, like those of the
Lernaean Hydra, become re-attached to their necks at the touch of their
owner's "fiery finger." Ivan, whom his foe has driven into the ground
up to his knees, hurls one of his gloves at the hut in which his
brothers are sleeping. It smashes the windows, but the sleepers
slumber on and take no heed. Presently Ivan smites off six of his
antagonist's heads, but they grow again as before. Half buried in
the ground by the monster's strength, Ivan hurls his other glove at
the hut, piercing its roof this time. But still his brothers slumber
on. At last, after fruitlessly shearing off nine of the Chudo-Yudo's
heads, and finding himself embedded in the ground up to his armpits,
Ivan flings his cap at the hut. The hut reels under the blow and its
beams fall asunder; his brothers awake, and hasten to his aid, and the
Chudo-Yudo is destroyed. The "Chudo-Yudo wives" as the widows of the
three monsters are called, then proceed to play the parts attributed
in "Ivan Popyalof" to the Snake's daughters.
"I will become an apple-tree with golden and silver apples," says the
first; "whoever plucks an apple will immediately burst." Says the
second, "I will become a spring--on the water will float two cups, the
one golden, the other of silver; whoever touches one of the cups, him
will I drown." And the third says, "I will become a golden bed;
whoever lies down upon that bed will be consumed with fire." Ivan, in
a sparrow's form, overhears all this, and acts as in the preceding
story. The three widows die, but their mother, "an old witch,"
determines on revenge. Under the form of a beggar-woman she asks alms
from the retreating brothers. Ivan tenders her a ducat. She seizes,
not the ducat, but his outstretched hand, and in a moment whisks him
off underground to her husband, an Aged One, whose appearance is that
of the mythical being whom the Servians call the Vy. He "lies on an
iron couch, and sees nothing; his long eyelashes and thick eyebrows
completely hide his eyes," but he sends for "twelve mighty heroes,"
and orders them to take iron forks and lift up the hair about his
eyes, and then he gazes at the destroyer of his family. The glance of
the Servian Vy is supposed to be as deadly as that of a basilisk, but
the patriarch of the Russian story does not injure his captive. He
merely sends him on an errand which leads to a fresh set of
adventures, of which we need not now take notice.
In a third variant of the story they are snakes which are killed
by the hero, Ivan Koshkin (Cat's son), and it is a Baba Yaga, or Hag,
who undertakes to revenge their deaths and those of their wives, her
daughters. Accordingly she pursues the three brothers, and succeeds in
swallowing two of them. The third, Ivan Koshkin, takes refuge in a
smithy, and, as before, the monster's tongue is seized, and she is
beaten with hammers until she disgorges her prey, none the worse for
their temporary imprisonment.
We have seen, in the story about the Chudo-Yudo, that the place
usually occupied by the Snake is at times filled by some other magical
being. This frequently occurs in that class of stories which relates
how three brothers set out to apprehend a trespasser, or to seek a
mother or sister who has been mysteriously spirited away. They usually
come either to an opening which leads into the underground world, or
to the base of an apparently inaccessible hill. The youngest brother
descends or ascends as the case may be, and after a series of
adventures which generally lead him through the kingdoms of copper, of
silver, and of gold, returns in triumph to where his brothers are
awaiting him. And he is almost invariably deserted by them, as soon as
they have secured the beautiful princesses who accompany him--as may
be read in the following (South-Russian) history of--